There are times when you need a piece of tech but the prices of new gear make it prohibitive. That was the situation I faced recently. I needed a portable computer to use while travelling. For quite some time I'd made do with a tablet but there are a few things I need to do that, while possible on a tablet, were costing me a lot of time. So, I started looking around at used and refurbished gear and picked up a used 11-inch MacBook Air for $400. So, how does this almost seven year old portable cope with today's world?
I wanted a small, light computer that I could run a limited set of apps on. I wasn't looking for a portable powerhouse - more like a serviceable workhorse.
So, I started looking through all the usual places, such as eBay, Facebook Marketplace, secondhand dealers and my personal network. After about a week, I found a suitable device for $400 through Facebook. There's a very small dent in the corner which doesn't affect the computer at all. And like many MacBook Airs, the screen hinge is loose. This is fixable but requires removing the display in order to tighten a couple of screws. This is a common complaint with the MacBook Air.
Speeds and feeds
While the 11-inch MacBook Air was a revelation when it was released back in 2010, it's not anywhere near the bleeding edge anymore. It has been overtaken on nearly every measure from screen quality to processing speed by systems produced over the last few years.
Still, it has a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 128GB of storage and 4GB of memory.
The 11.6-inch display runs at a meagre 1366 x 768 - so it's not even able to run HD video at full resolution. However, this isn't going to be used for entertainment so that's not a big deal for me.
The main programs I use are Feedly (for keeping up with all the newsfeeds I check on), Evernote (for interview recording, writing and research), Pixelmator (for image creation and editing) and the chat/collaboration apps Slack and Hipchat which I need for working with some of my clients.
I have no need for a local installation of Microsoft Office as I can use the cloud versions of those apps through my Office 365 account if I'm desperate or third-party apps for mail, my diary or other utilities. In fact, I haven't even bothered setting up my email accounts on the Air (which I've named, with a hint of irony, The Flash) as I can deal with email on my smartphone when I'm travelling.
The one other essential is VPN software. I have a subscription to Nord VPN which works across multiple devices. If you connect to any untrusted networks - and I'd guest almost every network is to be considered untrusted - a VPN is essential.
Well, there is one other app I've installed. Just in case I get bored on a flight, I've got Doom 3 so I can shoot some mutants to fill in the time.
On the road
I'm now about four weeks into using the MacBook Air. And, by and large, the machine has performed pretty well with a few minor quibbles.
Installing the latest version of macOS was a small challenge. The machine originally shipped with OS X Leopard and while the current version of macOS, His Sierra, runs on it, I needed to upgrade from Leopard to Mountain Lion before I could jump to High Sierra. On the upside, I was always going to completely wipe the system and start from scratch so it wasn't a massive issue - more of a one-time waste of time.
I do most of my drafting and research in Evernote and that app runs perfectly - well, as well as Evernote runs on any platform. Most of the other apps work as expected although Pixelmator, an image editing app that is similar to Photoshop in function, is a little sluggish, particularly when editing large images. But the app works fine - it's just the slow processor and small screen which are a bit of a pain.
The biggest hassle is battery life. The ageing battery pack can make it through about three hours, depending on what I'm doing. While that's fine most of the time, I'll be upgrading the battery before I take a long-haul flight. When the MacBook Air was first released, you could expect to get through most of a work-day on a single charge.
Fortunately, replacing the battery is a reasonably straight forward task and I can source a replacement from a reputable third party. But that will be a $200 exercise. I've spotted some far cheaper batteries on eBay but I'm quite wary of low-cost Lithium-Ion batteries as they can have a tendency to spontaneously combust.
One of the neat tools that iOS and macOS support is AirDrop - the ability to send content from one device to another. As the MacBook Air lacks the required hardware, I can't easily send files from iPhone to the MacBook Air. There are ways around this so it's a minor hassle rather than a catastrophe.
While the display is limited, it's fine for my main tasks of writing and carrying out some simple image editing and creation. I've even edited a couple of short videos on it without any problems.
What are the lessons?
In a world where companies implore us to buy and use the latest and greatest tech, it's interesting that such an old system can be perfectly serviceable. And while there have been some limitations, I suspect many computer users don't need to replace their tech at anything like the frequency hardware makers want us to.
While I was shopping around, I did find several models of the 11-inch MacBook Air at a wide range of prices. While I picked up the cheapest one I could find - I could easily have spent twice as much on models with just 2GB of memory and 64GB of storage (Apple was building systems to a price with such low specs). So, shop around and be patient.
With older laptops, battery life is likely to be an issue. So factor in the cost of a replacement.
Make sure you test the machine before handing over your money. I checked mine over to ensure it was OK. And pay attention to the power pack. Many older computers will have frayed or cracked power cables that will need to be replaced or repaired.
While I love keeping up with the latest tech, I can be productive on older gear. And at $400, this 11-inch MacBook Air has practically paid for itself.